Yes. God Requires Obedience for Salvation

Editor's Note: In this article, Dr. Michael Horton responds to common questions about obedience, salvation, and the role of the Holy Spirit. 

Does God require our obedience for salvation?

Sure he does. But here’s the key thing to remember. God gives what he commands. In the old covenant, God commanded the nation of Israel to circumcise their own hearts (Deut 10:16). In the new covenant, God promises to do that himself. We can’t even believe in Christ unless the Holy Spirit gives us faith, according to Ephesians 2:1-10 and many other passages.

Furthermore, we can’t obey our way into God’s family. He adopts those whom he has chosen from eternity, without any merits or foresight of what we will do. It’s pure grace. He credits us with his Son’s perfect righteousness. That’s the only way we can stand before a holy God without any blame. 

But God requires our obedience, just as any good father does. “If you love me,” Jesus said, “then you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). Imagine someone adopting a child into a great family full of love and grace. Then, after being written into the Father’s will, the young person says, “Glad to have the goods, but I don’t even know you. I’m gone.” Now, sometimes God’s children do actually go off to a far country into the depths of sin, like the prodigal son. They’re welcomed back, but as repentant children, just like the prodigal. The Father’s arms are wide open to receive prodigals back. But is obedience necessary? Of course, it is like in any good home.

Everyone the Father calls to himself by his Spirit through the gospel trust in Christ. And true faith always bears the fruit of love and good works. You can’t be united to Christ for justification and not also for sanctification. We’re justified apart from our own obedience precisely to become obedient sons and daughters in God’s worldwide family. But all of it, including our obedience, is a gift. When we sin, we still have an advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous. “When we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9).

Are Christians under the Ten Commandments or are we only responsible to keep New Testament commands?

There are two ways of being “under” the 10 Commandments. The first is being under the moral law as the basis for our salvation. This is the principle of “Do this and you will live; break it and you will die.” But Christ fulfilled this law in our place perfectly. When we place our faith in Christ, we are given his status as the faithful law-keeper even though we are far from it ourselves. That’s why the New Testament tells us that we are no longer under the law but under grace (Rom 6:14).

In the gospel, we’re told not only that Christ lived and died for us but that he rose again for us and that we are baptized into his victory over sin’s guilt and tyranny. He sent his Spirit to us to give us a new heart and to unite us to Christ through faith, which itself is his gift. So we’re not under the law as a way of being accounted righteous before God. It can’t condemn us. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). 

There’s a second sense of being “under the law” and that’s being obligated to what the law requires. Jesus taught that we're still obligated to the law: loving God and our neighbor is the summary of the Ten Commandments (Mat 22:40). Paul similarly teaches that the "law of Christ" is this command to love (Gal 6:2). But now this comes to us as those who are justified, free of the terrors of the law, who now spontaneously—from the heart—long to love God and our neighbor. The content of God's moral will for our lives hasn't changed. The Ten Commandments still summarize that moral will. Now the moral law can't condemn us but it does guide us. It still tells us what God requires even though it's no longer the taskmaster telling us, "Do or die!" for Jesus has done and died for us.

How can we live in the power of the Holy Spirit regularly?

All of us who are united to Christ seek to live more and more in the power of the Spirit. We want to bear the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, gentleness, peace, kindness, patience, and self-control. But it's a struggle, isn't it? Anybody who thinks it's easy doesn't really recognize the power of indwelling sin.

There are two things to bear in mind. First, all of us are baptized into one body—the body of Christ—by one Spirit, we’re told in 1 Cor 12:13. Some people talk about a second baptism that first-class Christians enjoy, but Paul says in Ephesians 4:1-3 that there’s “one baptism.” Everyone enjoys the same benefits of belonging to Christ. But there are different degrees of “filling.” Just a chapter after saying that there’s one baptism by one Spirit, Paul says in Eph 5:18, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit." We all are filled with the Spirit but in varying degrees. We all also "grieve the Spirit" by doing our own thing. So we’re called to be filled more and more with the Spirit by studying his Word, even singing it to each other, as he goes on to say.

So from the secure position of knowing that you are baptized by the Spirit into Christ as much as every other believer, press on to be filled with the Spirit by making use of his means of grace: the Word, especially as it’s preached, prayed and sung in the assembly of other believers on the Lord’s Day, but then throughout the day, every day, as we yield to the Spirit’s promptings rather than to our own selfish desires.

Photo of Michael Horton

Michael Horton

Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) is the Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The author of many books, including Core Christianity, he is also the host of the new Core Christianity radio show, a daily Bible question-and-answer show broadcasting nationwide. He lives with his wife Lisa and four children in Escondido, California. 

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